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“Three Questions For Ukraine Hawks”: There Are Real And Specific Questions We’d Better Ask Ourselves Before We Jump In

Watch an hour of cable—and I’m talking MSNBC; forget Fox—and you might well come away from the hyper-ventilations thinking that we will or should go to war over Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. Listen: Nobody’s going to war over Crimea. This isn’t 1853. Yes, it matters to us how Crimea may once again become a part of Russia, and we don’t like it a bit, but let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter to us in cold, hard, realpolitik terms, whether Crimea is a part of Russia. It’s used as a naval base, and Russia’s had that all along.

Now Ukraine, that’s different. Or so everyone on TV says. But when everyone starts saying something, I start doubting. After all, a decade ago, nearly “everyone”—every “grown up,” that is, every person who took a “properly expansive” view of American security in the post 9/11 age—said we needed to topple a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11. So: Is Ukraine different? We may decide that yes, it is, but there are some real and specific questions we’d better ask ourselves before we just automatically make that declaration.

One way we decide these things is by looking at the historical record, and the historical record practically screams no, Ukraine is not different, is not a vital American or Western interest. Soviet Russia annexed Ukraine in 1922, after a war that had commenced in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took Moscow. The borders of Ukraine changed many times over the years. Even its capital was moved from Kharkiv in the east to Kiev in the west. At the end of World War II, the USSR expanded Ukraine again, as Stalin unilaterally redrew the Curzon Line to take in Eastern Galicia and Lvov, Poland, which became and still is Lviv, Ukraine.

There were further alterations after the war. In 1954, as we all now know, Crimea became part of Ukraine (staying within the USSR). If the Western countries objected to any of these moves, they objected lightly and only formally. Roosevelt and Churchill pestered Stalin about the Lvov/Lviv situation at Yalta, but Uncle Joe wasn’t having it, and they left it alone.

So historically, Ukraine hasn’t been something the West regarded as worth fussing over very much. In more recent years, after the USSR’s collapse, Russia asserted that Ukraine and, for that matter, all 14 former satellite SSR’s were within the Russian sphere of influence. They even coined a term for it: the “near abroad.” Not all Americans have accepted the idea that the near abroad falls strictly within the Russian sphere of influence, by any means. When John McCain and Joe Biden and others thunder about bringing Georgia into NATO, they’re rejecting the idea explicitly. But like it or not, three presidents have basically accepted the idea—none more so than George W. Bush, who confronted Putin about his 2008 Georgia incursion (both happened to be in Beijing for the Olympics) and whose administration took a few steps but who never imposed sanctions, as Barack Obama has now. Bush’s green light to Putin shone far brighter than Obama’s has.

Of course, history changes. The fact that we never cared about Ukraine before doesn’t by definition mean that we shouldn’t care about it today. First, there is the matter of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States, Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s existing borders in exchange for it giving up its nukes. The Obama administration declared Russia in violation of that concord on March 1. More broadly, Putin is a despicable tyrant who wants glory for Mother Russia. If “glory” means swallowing back up those 14 former SSRs, then he does have to be countered. The Obama administration and the European Union should certainly impose tougher sanctions, and in the American case, on more than seven people. Maybe NATO troops should train Ukrainians, too—maybe not on Ukrainian soil, but somewhere in Europe. There are other similar steps that can be taken short of sending in a slew of “advisors” (special ops people) and military materiel just yet, like helping Ukraine get this new National Guard up and running.

But let’s just think hard about this. There’s nothing easier for pundits or commentators on cable to stomp the table about how Putin is playing us and running rings around Obama and he’s a madman who must be stopped. Our former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, said yesterday after Putin’s duma speech that the post-Cold War era was over. McFaul has been a reliable guide through these rapids, but that’s nonsense. We aren’t in a new Cold War. Spend five minutes ruminating on what happened during the Cold War and what sparked it, and you should be able to clear your head of such combustible notions. We’re a long way from that yet.

I’d like to hear everyone tossing around those kind of rhetorical lightning bolts answer, in a calm voice, three questions: One, why should Ukraine, which never before was a realpolitik first-order concern of the United States, be one now? Two, what exact sacrifices are we willing to make to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity? And three, what broader risks might those acceptable sacrifices entail, and are they worth it?

There might be very good answers to all three questions. But our political culture has a very bad habit of not wanting to discuss them much. That’s a habit we need to change.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Ukraine | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Oh Please!”: Mitt Romney Pretends To Know Foreign Policy

Last May, Mitt Romney was reportedly “restless” and decided he would “re-emerge in ways that will “help shape national priorities.’” And the failed presidential candidate hasn’t stopped talking since.

One can only speculate as to why Romney refuses to quietly, graciously step aside, but it appears he takes a certain satisfaction from bashing the president who defeated him, as often as possible, on as many topics as possible.

Today, the former one-term governor with no foreign policy experience decided to try his hand at condemning President Obama’s policy towards Ukraine and Russia, writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed, complaining about “failed leadership.”

When protests in Ukraine grew and violence ensued, it was surely evident to people in the intelligence community – and to the White House – that President Putin might try to take advantage of the situation to capture Crimea, or more.

Wrong. U.S. intelligence officials didn’t think Putin would try to take Crimea. For that matter, Russian officials didn’t think so, either. It wasn’t a smart strategic move, which made it that much less predictable.

That was the time to talk with our global allies about punishments and sanctions, to secure their solidarity, and to communicate these to the Russian president. These steps, plus assurances that we would not exclude Russia from its base in Sevastopol or threaten its influence in Kiev, might have dissuaded him from invasion.

That’s wrong, too. Daniel Larison’s take rings true: “The U.S. was in no position to reassure Moscow that it would not lose influence in Kiev, since the Kremlin assumed that the U.S. and EU were actively seeking to reduce its influence by encouraging Yanukovych’s overthrow. Romney thinks that the U.S. could have headed off the crisis by threatening Russia with punishment for things it had not yet done, but that ignores [the fact] that Russia has behaved the way that it has because it already thought that Western interference in Ukraine was too great.”

The time for securing the status-of-forces signatures from leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan was before we announced in 2011 our troop-withdrawal timeline, not after it. In negotiations, you get something when the person across the table wants something from you, not after you have already given it away.

That’s wrong, too. Romney fails to acknowledge that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan were prepared to negotiate over a long-term U.S. troop presence beyond 2014 back in 2011. (He also fails to acknowledge that he personally endorsed a troop-withdrawal timeline in 2008 – three years before 2011.)

It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office.

That’s wrong, too. The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project documents countries that have a more favorable opinion of the United States now than when President Obama was first inaugurated, and more importantly, the same study shows an even larger list of countries that respect the U.S. more than when Bush/Cheney brought our international reputation down to alarming depths.

Taken together, Romney’s op-ed doesn’t amount to much. But what’s especially odd is that the failed candidate is even trying.

Foreign policy has never been a signature issue for the Massachusetts Republican, and when he tried to broach the subject, Romney generally failed. Indeed, looking back at 2012, let’s not forget that Romney’s own advisers said “they have engaged with him so little on issues of national security that they are uncertain what camp he would fall into, and are uncertain themselves about how he would govern.”

On the Middle East peace process, Romney said he intended to ”kick the ball down the field and hope” that someone else figures something out. His handling of the crisis in Libya “revealed him as completely craven.” On Iran, Romney and his aides couldn’t even agree on one policy position. On Afghanistan, Romney occasionally forgot about the war.

Remember the time Romney “fled down a hallway and escaped up an escalator” to avoid a reporter asking his position on the NATO mission in Libya? Or how about the time he said there are “insurgents” in Iran? Or when he flip-flopped on Iraq? Or when he looked ridiculous during the incident involving Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng?

Perhaps my personal favorite was when Romney tried to trash the New START nuclear treaty in an op-ed, but flubbed every relevant detail, prompting Fred Kaplan to respond, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and – let’s not mince words – thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty.”

Thomas Friedman noted shortly before the election, “For the first time in a long, long time, a Democrat is running for president and has the clear advantage on national security policy.” Part of this, the columnist argued, is that Mitt Romney acts “as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes.”

So why is this guy writing WSJ op-eds as if he’s a credible voice on international affairs?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Mitt Romney | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Magical Thinking Run Amok”: Now Is A Good Time For The Administration’s Critic’s To Just Shut The Hell Up

Now that the Crimean “referendum,” such as it was, has produced its preordained outcome, and probably even the most intense Ukrainian nationalists have given up hope of ever recovering that territory, the big question now is less one of “punishing” Russia for an undoubted violation of international law, than of losing any influence on what Putin does next.

In that context, all the howling for U.S. “leadership” and “toughness” we hear is more than a little incoherent. As Michael Cohen points out at the Guardian, nobody among the many critics of the Obama administration is willing to advocate military action:

[O]ne is hard-pressed to find a single person in Washington who believes the US should send actual American soldiers to Ukraine – even if Russia truly escalates the crisis and send its troops into Eastern Ukraine.

All of which raises a quite serious and legitimate question: what the hell are we arguing about?

If the US is not prepared to put troops on the ground? If we’re not willing to use military force? If we’re content with taking the biggest tool in the US toolbox off the table, then how exactly is the United States supposed to reverse Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? Our vast military capabilities won’t mean much to Putin if he knows we aren’t willing to use them.

Here’s the dirty little secret of the foreign-policy pundit/expert orgy on what to do about Crimea: the US has at its disposal very few levers with which to change Russia’s behavior, at least in the near-term. We can cancel multilateral summits and military training (already done); we can deny visas to Russian officials (just beginning); we can even ramp up bilateral economic sanctions and try to build support among key European allies for a larger, more invasive sanctions regime (under discussion).

But as our long effort to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambition reminds us, such steps will take time and diplomatic effort to bring results. They won’t offer the guarantee of a satisfactory result, and they could produce significant economic backlash for US companies – and, more directly, US allies.

In the end, we’re stuck arguing over policy responses that largely dance around the margins, and a situation in which Europe’s actions likely matter more than America’s.

One thing is for certain sure: all the high-volume demands we are hearing from American pundits and Republican politicians that Obama magically change the situation by “standing up” to Putin (without, of course, even contemplating military action) aren’t helping. If there were ever a good time for an administration’s critics to shut up for a brief while and await further developments–from the Russians, from the Ukrainians, from the Europeans, and from our own diplomats–this is it.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, March 17, 2014

March 18, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Ukraine | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Playing The Wrong Blame Game”: Blame Vladimir Putin For The Ukraine Crisis, Not President Obama

All I have heard with regard to Ukraine & Russia is the blame game. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC said it was Bush’s fault. The right wingers in America say it’s President Barack Obama’s fault. And I, Leslie Marshall, who do I blame?


Putin is acting like a school yard bully, only it isn’t kids he’s targeting, it’s an entire nation. Putin loves what most nation’s leaders historically have: power and money. Just look at the emperors of Rome or the kings of England; the more land they acquired, the more powerful and richer they were. And so is the case with Putin and Ukraine – if he gets his way. And that’s a big if. The people have spoken. The Ukranian parliament has booted its former elected leader. Ukraine wants to be westernized and a part of the European Union. And the western world wants to help them; the United States has already promised, pending Congressional approval, $1 billion dollars in loan guarantees.

Now there are those that believe this is personal between Putin and Obama, as if Putin deliberately took action in Ukraine when the president warned him not to. And to those I say: Don’t be ridiculous. Again, remember who this man is and what he wants. Putin has the ego of Ramses and would have responded in this matter to the resistance of the pro-European Ukranians no matter who was president … Obama, either Bush, Clinton, Carter, Reagan, FDR, Truman or Eisenhower in the same exact way.

And speaking of past presidents; many on the right have invoked the name ‘Reagan” with regard to this issue, saying their political messiah would have shown Putin who is boss. Really? Doubtful. This is a very different time. Putin isn’t Gorbachev, Ukraine isn’t East Germany.

The right also want to blame President Obama for resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia in ’09 and not being more forceful; accusing him of having a weak foreign policy. Really? Was taking Osama bin Laden out weak!? Oh I’m sorry, our Navy SEALs took him out, I forget. But when Saddam Hussein was captured, wasn’t the line being used that Bush got Saddam? I didn’t hear ‘our troops caught Saddam.”

So let’s talk about Saddam. Saddam Hussein. A man who wrongly imprisoned his people and made many of them disappear. Sounds a bit like Putin doesn’t it? There are those that also say we have no right to call out Russia for breaking the law by invading the sovereign nation of Ukraine; but let’s look at who is making that statement: President Obama. Although the United States invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq, it was done during the Bush presidency – and voted against by a young Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Iraq was not Obama’s war. He did not start it, he ended it. Must we refuse to help any nation being invaded in the present because of our past sins?

And there are those on the right who roll their eyes at the president when he speaks (hello Lindsey Graham) and many on the right who say the world doesn’t respect Obama or take him seriously and they’re wrong. Of course when the president wanted to fly over Libya’s air space they said he was overreaching. And now with Ukraine’s he’s too cautious. Perhaps the right should make up its mind.

Let’s be honest, the United States is not going to get involved militarily in Ukraine. Obama knows it, the right knows it, Putin knows it and furthermore, both parties in the U.S. don’t want it nor do our allies. Ukraine is just not that important politically or resource wise to either the United States or the EU. So the President has limited options with what he can do. And I believe he is going about this the right way.

Due to Putin’s nature (power and greed), we must strike him where it hurts most. We need to reduce Russia’s International stature and isolate Russia, not just the country, but it’s people; especially the richest of the rich of Russia.

Now Russia’s stature has already been diminished. President Obama contacted (and got on board) Germany, the U.K., Poland and every other G8 nation to hold off preparations for the Sochi meetings. Further, to isolate Russia, Secretary Kerry has discussed travel bans and there is a possibility of freezing Russian business assets. And learning from history, the U.S. won’t do this alone. We won’t fly solo or take just a few of our team with us; we need everyone worldwide to be on board, otherwise we will fail.

And for those that think Obama is weak, an intellect who is trying diplomacy while Putin comes to the fight with a weapon; think again. Putin backed a failed government in Kiev. Putin watched as the world was disgusted by his actions in Ukraine; so much so, he made up a nice fairy tale to justify it. And after President Obama accused Putin of breaking the law, we have not seen any movement from the Russian military in  Crimea.

So who is to blame? Putin.

Who does the world look down upon? Putin.

Who is losing this fight? Putin

So for those of you that want to champion Putin over our president, like actor Steven Seagal did on Russian television, perhaps you had better wear red rather than red, white and blue. Obama’s our commander in chief. Russia’s not our ally. The right thing to do – the patriotic thing to do – is to back our president and trust he has our best interest at hand.

In Kiev this week, voices echoed as they chanted “Thank You America!” as Putin covered his ears.


BY: Leslie Marshall, U. S. News and World Report, March 6, 2014

March 7, 2014 Posted by | Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Soft Power Can Hurt”: Beneath The Hypocrisy, Putin Is Vulnerable; Here’s Where His Soft Spots Are

In dispatching troops to Ukraine, Russia has violated international law, flouted multiple treaty commitments, and set the stage for a European war. It has no casus belli, aside from an eccentric understanding of the domestic politics of a neighboring country. The Kremlin’s surreal warmongering is bad enough, and obviously demands a response from the European Union, the entity that, beyond Ukraine itself, is most immediately concerned. Ukraine borders on four European Union members, and its new government has made joining the EU its foreign policy priority.

Russian intervention in Ukraine is directed against the EU, which Moscow has now decided is a threat to its interests and indeed a civilizational challenge. President Putin’s global crusade against gays has become, during these last few weeks, a specific foreign policy doctrine directed against the EU. The Kremlin has made clear that control of Ukraine is one step towards the creation of a Eurasian Union, a rival organization to the EU which will reject European “decadence” in favor of a defense of Christian heterosexuality etc. For months press organs close to the Kremlin have referred to Europe as “Gayropa.”

How can Europe respond to the immediate problem of military intervention in Ukraine and the more fundamental political challenge to European values and achievements? It goes without saying that the EU cannot act alone. In 1994, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial inviolability in exchange for Kiev’s agreement to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Now that Russia has violated this agreement and rejected American proposals to begin consultations based upon its premises, London and Washington are directly implicated in the crisis. Ukraine also borders four members of NATO. The United States is the relevant military power.

Yet the EU might hold stronger cards than the Russians think. Russian propaganda about depraved Europe conceals an intimate relationship. Tourism in the European Union is a safety valve for a large Russian middle class that takes its cues in fashion and pretty much everything else from European culture. Much of the Russian elite has sent its children to private schools in the European Union or Switzerland. Beyond that, since no Russian of any serious means trusts the Russian financial system, wealthy Russians park their wealth in European banks. In other words, the Russian social order depends upon the Europe that Russian propaganda mocks. And beneath hypocrisy, as usual, lies vulnerability.

Soft power can hurt. General restrictions on tourist visas, a few thousand travel bans, and a few dozen frozen accounts might make a real difference. If millions of urban Russians understood that invading Ukraine meant no summer vacation, they might have second thoughts. If the Russian elites understood that invading Ukraine meant dealing with their disaffected teenagers on an indefinite basis, they too might reconsider. If wealthy Russians understood that their accounts could be frozen, as has just happened to Ukrainian oligarchs, that might affect their calculations as well. These punishments might seem minor compared to the crime, but Putin is gambling that the EU will not do even this. These measures would have costs, of course. But the price of a military conflict in the middle of Europe would be far higher.

Of course, such steps, which can be taken immediately, would precede a general reconsideration of overall EU-Russian relations. The European Union is by far Russia’s most important trading partner, although the reverse is not the case. The EU relies upon Russia for natural gas and oil, and sends in return finished goods. Given that Russia has twice in recent years tried to use natural gas supplies to threaten the EU, and has begun to intervene militarily in a country across which the pipelines flow, now might be a good time to reconsider energy policy. A simple announcement of the intention to investigate Norwegian and American hydrocarbons might make a difference. Over the long run, of course, the EU has every incentive to develop fusion and other alternatives that would free it from its artificial dependence upon a bellicose petrol state.

Russian propaganda derides Europeans as fey and helpless, and we too often tend to agree. But the European Union does have instruments of influence. Its greatest power, of course, is its attractiveness to societies on its borders, such as Ukraine. But even where membership is not an option, and the EU faces unambiguous hostility, it can act. Russia’s very contempt for the European Union might force Europeans to undertake a more active foreign policy and to take responsibility for their neighborhood.


By: Timothy Snyder, The New Republic, March 1, 2014

March 2, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Russia, Ukraine | , , , , | Leave a comment

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